Postcard from the Edge of Nature

Nature is a curious thing. In my experience it either comes as the Disney tra-la-la everything’s perfect, humming bird and butterfly option or as the nasty, bitey, itchy, cold and smoky option. My first US vacation (my, how I slip in to the vernacular) had elements of both.

Disney Nature – Route 1
Our first sojourn started 250 miles south of San Francisco at Hearst Castle testament to what can be accomplished by the seriously, seriously wealthy. Built and owned by the newspaper magnet William Randolph Hearst, it was his honey pot to attract the famous and beautiful in the 1930s and 40s. The visitors list reads like a Who’s Who of the Hollywood A-list at the time, Chaplin, Weissmuller, Fairbanks, Joan Crawford, the list is endless.

The 165 room mansion is sumptuously decorated and has two of the most fabulous swimming pools I have ever seen, the Neptune pool was used in the movie Troy it is so close to an authentic roman baths and the indoor pool was described by Clark Gable as one of the most romantic places on earth. The 2 hour tour did it scant justice, but gave a taste for more.

From there Disney nature kicked in as we trolled down the famous Route 1 through San Simeon through Big Sur, the 17-mile drive to Monterey. This stretch of coastline must be one of the most beautiful I have ever seen, each twisty turn bringing in new sweeping vistas that seemed to try to out-do each other.  Big Sur and the 17-mile drive though an enclave for the moderately wealthy were also good in the own rights, but could not hold a candle to the splendour of Route 1.

We spent the night in Monterey and set off the next morning to see its one big attraction the Monterey Aquarium. I did not think you could spend a whole day in an aquarium, but I was proved wrong, with each exhibit topping the next. Three highlights for were:
•    The 10m (33 foot) tank for viewing California coastal marine life. In this tank, the aquarium was the first in the world to grow live California Giant Kelp with a specially designed wave machine
•    The 1.3 million gallon tank in the features one of the world’s largest single-paned windows where the “large fish” roam, feeding time was a frenzy as literally schools of fish battled it out
•    Finally, the sea otters were just fun. Were arrived at opening times where these playful creatures took their ice coated foot and knocked it against the outside wall to crack it.

All in all, Disney nature at its finest.

Edge of nature 1

Smokey Nature – Route 876b
The second trip was to the Yosemite National Park, and encompassed bitey nature but thankfully Disney nature towards the end, otherwise it would have been a disappointing trip.

The first thing you notice about Yosemite was how inconveniently it is located. I mean, this is America, I am sure they could have put it next to a big town, built a monorail or at least paved a major highway, but no, it has to be in the middle of nowhere necessitating hours of driving. The route is made longer if all the semi-convenient entrances to the park are out of service due to huge fires blazing across the landscape. Land of convenience? I say no.

We arrived, eventually, though the south gate, furthest from fires and went on a little trek to visit some impressive, gigantic sequoia trees. We parked next to a fat guy enjoying nature, fast asleep in his car with all the windows shut, a neck pillow, a McDonalds bag next to him, and the motor running to keep the air conditioning running. We left him and trekked up the 2 mile path to see these awesome trees (largest trees in the world, some over 1,000 years old) and enjoy their vibrant colours and even walk through one hollowed out trunks. The protection of these trees outstanding natural beauty was one of the original reasons Yosemite became a State park. We returned over an hour later, and left the guy sleeping, engine still running – doing his part for mother nature.

The other area of outstanding natural beauty that John Muir sought to protect when he suggested creating the 3,081 km² park was the Yosemite valley, the most visited part of the park – an incredible gorge caved out of the surrounding mountains by a massive glacier. As we drove towards it, we stopped at the view points to see the “incredible sights”, which for us consisted mostly of forest fire smoke accompanied by swarms of bugs – very disappointing.

The second disappointment was the hotel. I had decided to push the boat out on this trip, and had splashed out big-time for 2 nights at the “Yosemite Lodge at the Falls” at the base of the highest waterfall in North America, the 739m high Yosemite Falls. However, due to the water shortage and fires, the waterfall was off and we were staying at the “Yosemite Lodge at the dried-out-crevice”.

The theme of no water continued in to the next day. We hired bikes to transverse the valley and admire the smoke banks drifting through. Fed up of a uniform mistiness, we stopped off at the sign “Mirror Lake” and hiked for a while. After trekking for what seemed too long, we met up with a ranger who pointed us back the way we came, and told us that the lake was dry due to lack of water. It should be renamed “Mirror Meadow” he quipped. How we did laughed. NOT.

So the day drew to an end, and probably the most exciting thing we had seen was incredible inventiveness to produce the ultimate bear-proof rubbish bin.

But the next morning the wind had changed direction and what a difference a day makes. Bright sunshine greeted us as we got up early for a hike – and this time I was going to see working waterfalls come hell or high-water (pun intended). The guidebook classifies the hike up the to the Vernal and Nevada falls as a 5-6 hour “demanding” hike with an elevation change of 570m (1,900 ft). Demanding it may have been, but the truly extravagant scenery, seen clearly for the first time, distracted us from aching calves and throbbing thighs. The falls too were pretty magnificent, even with reduced water flow. We didn’t fancy continuing up another 800m to the top of the half dome, so after a great photo opportunity we started the long hike down.

So after a bit of a ropey start, the trip had ended Disney well. We saw no bears, got fleeced at the hotel and the park restaurants, but the final day made it all worthwhile. Yosemite is definitely worth visiting, but probably in spring when there is more water. And less smoke.

Edge of Nature 2

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